A modified version of this post appeared in West Windsor & Plainsboro News (Newspaper from Dharun Ravi’s hometown)
The defense in the Rutgers webcam trial began this Friday, March 09, 2012. Dharun Ravi, a college student in New Jersey, has been charged with 15 counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, for allegedly watching and surreptitiously webcasting his roommate Tyler Clementi’s sexual encounter with an other man. Clementi subsequently jumped off the George Washington bridge to his death. If convicted, Dharun Ravi faces up to ten years in prison and the threat of deportation.
The defense team presented seven character witnesses who testified that Dharun Ravi never said anything derogatory about gay people or homosexuality. These witnesses – Anil Kappa, Sandeep Sharma, Rajesh Rathinasabapathi, Ramkumar Pandurangan, Girish Warrier, Karthikeyan Arunachalam and Murugan Gnanavel – were all South Asian men, friends and business associates of Dharun’s father Ravi Pazhani.
When the defense lawyer asked the witnesses if they had ever heard Dharun Ravi speak ill of gay people, they all had the same answer: No.
The defense team hoped these seven character witnesses would help prove that Dharun Ravi was not biased against gay people and therefore not guilty of the bias intimidation charges.
Prosecution attorney Julia McClure cross examined these witnesses with a very simple question. “Did the topic of homosexuality ever come up in your discussions with Dharun Ravi?”
All the seven men, again had the same answer: No.
I am a South Asian Indian living in New Jersey. In more ways than one, my background is similar to Ravi Pazhani, Dharun’s father. I grew up in the same state (Tamil Nadu) and speak the same language as Ravi Pazhani. Like Ravi Pazhani, I also work in Information Technology and moved to the United States for work. Coincidentally until last year, I lived in the same town (Plainsboro) as Ravi Pazhani. Interestingly, I also share a similarity with Tyler Clementi. I am gay.
I know I am guessing here, but if Ravi Pazhani, the father, were to testify, his answer would be the same as that of his seven friends. “No. We never discussed homosexuality within our families.” Watching the trial, I couldn’t help but wish Dharun had actually had a chance to talk about homosexuality with his father. I can’t help but wonder if sex and sexuality weren’t a taboo in Indian culture, if Dharun would be sitting in the court room accused of violating his roommate’s privacy?
Ravi Pazhani comes from a country that has a population of more than one billion. A country that gifted the KamaSutra to the rest of the world, but where it is very common for people to act like the word “sex” doesn’t exist. Forget about homosexuality: even heterosexuality is never discussed in living rooms or at dinner tables. Until puberty, Indian kids are told the “god drops baby into mummy’s tummy” story and after that it suddenly becomes a topic that should never be discussed. It is then up to the individuals to figure out human sexuality and its complexities. The birds and the bees conversation rarely happens in the family, except during veiled references by mothers to their daughters who are entering puberty.
Sex is a dirty word that also never gets discussed in schools. I remember, in our Class X biology book, the last lesson was on human reproductive organs. But that lesson was never taught in the class and it was an unspoken agreement between students, teachers and the education department that no questions will be asked from that lesson in board exams. My friend, who came to the US recently to work as a teacher, was completely horrified that she, as a science teacher was expected to teach her students about sex and sexual organs.
So where do children and adolescents in India turn for information on sex and sexuality? Their peers and friends in schools and colleges, who are equally as clueless as them. Growing up as teenager with same-sex attraction, in the 1990s, in a non-metro town in Tamil Nadu, I believed I was the only boy in the entire universe who was attracted to other boys. I did not know the words ‘homosexuality’ or ‘gay’ or its non-derogatory Tamil equivalents until I got access to the Internet in my early twenties. When my friends talked about girls, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me and if I did not become “normal” by a certain age, I was better off killing myself than living with this “disease” of same-sex attraction.
I was twenty eight when I came out to my parents. My parents asked me this: “If you had these feelings since you were a teenager, why didn’t you ever tell us?”
It was such a loaded question! On one hand, they were upset that I had to go through this all alone, but on the other hand they also wanted to verify whether I really had same-sex attraction as a teenager or if it was a more recent phenomenon, a bad western influence (a year before I came out to them I had moved to the UK for my job).
I couldn’t help but break into tears when I heard that question over the phone, from my parents. For years I suffered alone dealing with my sexuality. I had absolutely no support, no help, no one with whom I could talk. It was traumatic! I tried my best to tell my parents but never mustered the courage. In India, as a teenager you can never talk about your attraction, romance or love with your parents or other senior members in the family, even if it was for the opposite sex. Then how on the earth, I could tell my parents that I was attracted to other boys? I didn’t.
Following India’s economic liberalization policies of the early 1990s, there has been increased media-driven circulation of information and discourse on the subject of homosexuality. Many Indians mistake the increasing visibility of homosexuality for an increase in the prevalence of homosexuality itself, and blame the latter on ‘Western influence’. To the contrary, India, before British colonialism, was a sexually liberal country. Homosexuality and transgender behavior have existed for centuries in Indian culture and Hindu mythology, and there is substantial body of scholarship on these topics. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes same-sex behavior, failing to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual acts, was introduced by Lord Macaulay during the British era. On July 2009, the Delhi High Court, in its historic ruling, read down Section 377, thereby decriminalizing adult consensual homosexual behavior in India. The Supreme Court of India is currently hearing appeals of the Delhi High Court’s judgment. At the hearings, India’s Additional Solicitor General (ASG), P.P. Malhotra, representing the Indian government, told the Supreme Court that he did not doesn’t know any homosexuals. As if the ASG’s statement were not outrageous enough, the health minister of the world’s largest democracy called homosexuality a disease and a Western influence.
I was discussing homophobia among Indians, with a straight Indian coworker of mine, and what she said made sense to me. “See Indians don’t want to talk about sex. We don’t want to deal with it openly. For centuries we managed to sweep it under the carpet and keep it all hush hush. The Naz Foundation case on sec 377 and the discussions about homosexuality, now forces us to confront our unwillingness to talk about sex. We are forced to talk about what is between our legs and how we use it. The ‘God drops baby into mummy’s tummy’ explanation is not enough anymore. We have to admit that sex is not just for procreation, and it it is an expression of love and lust. We don’t want to go there. That is why all these desperate attempts to brand homosexuality as unnatural and a Western influence.”
Indian and other South Asian communities in the US, of which Ravi Pazhani and I are now a part, are largely either ignorant of homosexuality, or homophobic. For many Indians in the US, homosexuality is something that happens only among Americans. Compared to people in India, Indians living abroad also feel additional pressure to follow their ‘culture’. Unfortunately, disliking and condemning Western values, means they cling to their own limited perceptions of what ‘Indian culture’ is. These perceptions are especially strong among those who emigrated from India in the 1970s or earlier, when there was even less discourse around homosexuality in Indian media. In my five years in the United States, I have met a lot of American born Desis (Indian Americans), who find it unbelievable that I and many other young Indians who grew up in India are out to our parents. Some of these Indian-American youth find it more difficult to come out to their parents than some of us who grew up in India do.
I don’t know if Ravi Pazhani, the father, was homophobic, but he grew up in a India that considers sex a taboo subject and associates homosexuality with shame. Dharun, on the other hand, grew up in the United States, a relatively sexually liberal country. Discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation have no place in New Jersey’s public schools and universities. The state also has one of the strictest laws in the United States against hate crimes. A bias intimidation conviction can carry up to 10 years in prison in New Jersey.
According to Ian Parker’s report in the New Yorker, Dharun wrote the following to his friend Tam, about his roommate’s sexuality “I still don’t really care, except what my parents are going to say. My dad is going to throw him out the window.” Is this likely to have been true? Was Dharun’s father, Ravi, indeed homophobic? If so, was it because of his ignorance and that he thought homosexuality was a bad Western influence? How much of Dharun’s perceptions of homosexuality arose from needing to conform to his family and cultural expectations, compared to what he actually felt about gay people?
If the father was not homophobic, then why did Dharun assume he was? Was it because, like many other South Asian families, his family ignored topics of sex and sexuality, giving an impression that any sexual act or expression, outside marriage, was an aberration, a condemnable act?
Ravi Pazhani and Dharun Ravi grew up in two different worlds. Sex, sexuality and the politics around them are completely different in these worlds. This is true for many first-generation Americans: their worlds inside and outside their homes are drastically different. If Ravi had acknowledged this difference, and as a parent taken the time to help his son navigate the two worlds, would things have turned out differently? If homosexuality is yet another cultural conflict between Indian-American youth and their parents, what can we do to confront it?
And, back in India, what can we do to make Additional Solicitor General P.P. Malhotra and others of his ilk realize that homosexuality is an intrinsic part of our diverse Indian cultures, and that invisibility and silences do not mean absence?
I have more questions than answers.
Note: The author hopes to initiate open discussions within the South Asian community on the topics of gender and sexuality. This is not an attempt to pitch Indian conservatism against American openness.
Background: This article refers to Dharun Ravi’s trial in the Tyler Clementi Webcam spying case. For more background on this case, please refer to Vikram’s post and the New Yorker article he cites.
Update: March 16, 2012. Dharun Ravi was found guilty on all major counts in the NJ vs Dharun Ravi case. Dharun was convicted on all 15 counts against him, including four bias intimidation counts, but acquitted on some of the bias charges involving his former roommate, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman. Read more at: Dharun Ravi found Guilty on most counts